Winston Churchill debate shows everyone is a hero or villain these days

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 18 February 2019 in Comment

The row over Churchill shows Brexit is the UK's new “darkest hour” with little sign of political leadership

Mandy Rhodes - Holyrood Magazine

Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, is just the latest politician to fall foul of the flag-waving patriots who see the Great in Britain as a time when we ruled an Empire, when he deigned to paint Winston Churchill as a baddie.

McDonnell, like the Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer, before him, chose to not simply see our past through rose-tinted spectacles but to recognize that politicians, like our history is nuanced. And when asked the simple question; ‘Churchill, hero or villain?’, he answered honestly, “Tonypandy. Villain”.

McDonnell was referring to the bloody incident in November 2010 in the south Wales town of that name, when one miner was killed and nearly 600 people, including 80 policemen, were injured after Churchill, the then home secretary, sent over 200 police officers along with the added fire power of army officers held in back-up in Cardiff, to break the miners’ picket line.

And to be fair to McDonnell, he did also say later that Churchill was of course a hero during the second world war but that there was another side to him, and that he was a complex character.

McDonnell was right. Churchill, like other great political figures was as flawed as he was talented. He was a depressive who drank too much, he was unfaithful to his wife and was running a country when he was also running on amphetamines and using barbiturates to sleep.

He was a powerful brain, a great orator and led this country through the most troubled of years. His politics also moved with the times; he went from one party to another, testing his own principles against public policy and personal ambition.

But equally, he was a creature of his time and his language, like his actions, when measured against the current tropes were often racist, could be cruel, anti-trade unionist and should be interrogated.

What else was a Labour politician to say when offered the choice of two one-word answers about him?

But the vitriol expanded on the argument over whether Churchill was a hero or a villain, is just symptomatic of the binary view of life that now exists across our political discourse. And I was reminded of this last week when I interviewed Tony Blair.

In him, we have a leader who achieved so much, held power for so long, and who undoubtedly shifted the axis of political thinking but all good was erased from the national psyche by one act of perceived villainy.

Even my mother text me as I was about to sit down with the former prime minister to say, ‘don’t mention the war’.

Binary storytelling, a myopic view of politicians and their achievements has become a national past time with facts and balance eschewed for shouty faux emotion.

Churchill’s time in office straddled the most turbulent period in modern history and showed leadership when it was required. Meanwhile, in a country torn apart by Brexit and with less than 40 days to go before we are legally kicked out of the EU, we face our own ‘darkest hour’ with little sign of political leadership.

How the history books record the madness of what we are now living through is still to be written, but one thing is for sure, Theresa May will be revered as a hero of no one and a villain of many.


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